The history of wine in Washington State goes back to 1825, when the first wine grapes were planted by French, German, and Italian immigrants and wine made by a few home winemakers. By the turn of the 20th century, snowcaps melting down from the Cascade Mountains fueled large-scale irrigation, unlocking the dormant potential of Eastern Washington’s rich volcanic soils and warm, sunny, desert-like climate. But it wasn’t until the 1960s that the first commercial-scale plantings began, resulting in a rapid expansion of the industry in the mid-1970s that was unrivaled until today’s breakneck pace, where a new winery opens every couple of weeks.
How big has Washington wine become? Consider:
- The number of Washington wineries has increased 400% in the last decade
- Two million people per year visit Washington wine country
- Wine production is now the fastest-growing agricultural sector in the state
Washington State wine country falls within approximately the same latitude (46ºN) as great French wine regions such as Bordeaux and Burgundy, and now includes 13 federally recognized American Viticultural Areas (AVAs), commonly known as appellations (three share territory with Oregon State). Those appellations are:
- Yakima Valley (established 1983)
- Columbia Valley (est. 1984; encompasses Red Mountain,
Yakima Valley, Walla Walla Valley, Wahluke Slope, Rattlesnake Hills,
Horse Heaven Hills, Snipes Mountain, Naches Heights and Lake Chelan AVAs
and more than 95% of the total vineyard acreage planted in the state.)
- Walla Walla Valley (est. 1984)
- Puget Sound (est. 1995)
- Red Mountain (est. 2001)
- Columbia Gorge (est. 2004)
- Horse Heaven Hills (est. 2005)
- Wahluke Slope (est. 2006)
- Rattlesnake Hills (est. 2006)
- Snipes Mountain (est. 2009)
- Lake Chelan (est. 2009)
- Naches Heights (est. 2012)
- Ancient Lakes of the Columbia Valley (est. 2012)
Additionally, The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater is a 250-acre sub-appellation of Walla Walla Valley that is located entirely within Oregon state.
Climates of individual Washington wine regions differ dramatically. Cross cut north to south by the Cascade Mountains, Washington State is more mild and lush to the west of this volcanically formed barrier than the lands to its east. In fact, the Puget Sound AVA/appellation is the only officially recognized wine region on the west side of the Cascades. Currently, only about 1% of the state’s wine grapes are grown here, and just a handful of Washington wineries produce wines from those locally grown grapes. In the Puget Sound AVA, eastbound marine air masses drift over the ridges of the Coast Range and flow toward the Cascade range, creating a cool climate. Clouds must rise to continue their eastward heading, and air temperatures fall as elevation increases — in turn, moisture forms as rain or snow before the north-south barrier of the Cascade ridges is breached. Very little moisture reaches the east side of these towering mountains, thus causing a “rain shadow” effect that keeps more than half of Washington State’s wine regions semi-arid to arid.
That dry climate, combined with long daylight hours during growing season, create prime growing conditions for vines in the lands of eastern Washington. Vineyard canopies can be controlled by irrigation management and grapes can fully ripen here, bringing complex fruit flavors, good acid levels and pleasing aromatics to Washington wines.
Hope you learned something from this brief primer. For more in-depth information, photos, news, wine reviews, touring tips, and maps of Washington State wine country (as well as Oregon, Idaho, and British Columbia), visit the Wines Northwest website, the Pacific Northwest’s guide to wines, wine country, and the good life.
Based in Vancouver, Washington, Susan O’Hara moved to the Pacific Northwest from California in 1976 and never looked back. Her love of travel and discovery soon evolved into a love affair with the roads and destinations of the region. While her interest in wine took root in California, it budded, then blossomed in the wine regions of Washington, Oregon, Idaho and British Columbia. An innate curiosity and love of learning soon resulted in an extensive knowledge of Pacific Northwest wine country, and in 1997 Susan created a full-time avenue for sharing what she learned with others; that avenue today is known WinesNorthwest.com. The comprehensive nature of the site reflects not only Susan’s keen interest and understanding of the wine industries she covers, but also her professional background in writing, communications, program management, and development work.